The Sugar Thieves Carry Arizonas Flag to the International Blues Challenge
Mikel Lander has a certain contempt for female vocalists, particularly attractive ones who front all-male bands. Hayley Williams? Feh. Gwen Stefani? Ditto.
"I've seen plenty of bands with chick singers who are really popular, but it's just a gimmick," he says. "They get more credit than they deserve just because they're some hot broad up on stage shaking their ass."
For a while, the blues guitarist even refused to partner with the ladies in a musical capacity. Lest you think he's a six-string sexist, however, Lander makes exceptions for such locals as Black Carl's Emma Pew and Dry River Yacht Club's Garnet. And, of course, his honey-voiced girlfriend Meredith Moore, with whom he shares singing duties in their rootsy blues ensemble, The Sugar Thieves.
Lander's attitude is nothing if not ironic, considering that his musical partnership with Moore has propelled him to a greater level of success than he'd ever achieved alone. The 20-something couple's vocal talents and high-energy approach injects youthful vigor into an aging genre. It's also earned their five-piece ensemble appeal among both younger fans of indie music and older Rhythm Room types and netted them a return trip to this week's prestigious International Blues Challenge in Memphis, where they were finalists last year.
To think Lander initially brushed off his future girlfriend's request to jam when they met in 2006 through a mutual friend at a Tempe house party. Moore had moved from her native Nebraska a year earlier and was keen on collaborating with local musicians after haunting the Yucca Tap's open mic. She'd formed a funk/blues project with the evening's host, (and Gin Blossoms) guitarist Scotty Johnson, and figured Mikel would also be down.
"And he totally blew me off," says Moore while reminiscing recently with Lander over beers and Jäger shots on the Sail Inn's patio.
"Lemme see," Lander responds. "Her pitch was like, 'I've got a fresh innovative idea. I'm going to do this blues band,' and my ears perk up at hearing that. Then she said, 'I wanna do a hip-hop thing with it with a DJ, and have him spinning some beats.' And I kinda went, 'Nahhh.'"
Lander pulled an about-face weeks later after he heard her pitch-perfect singing voice for the first time, during a gig at VooDoo Daddy's in Tempe with her band and Chocolate Fountain, the defunct funk act he was playing guitar with at the time. They began writing songs together shortly thereafter.
Moore's become accustomed to the positive reactions she gets when people hear her sumptuous golden vocals. She even claims Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon seemed to dig it during The Sugar Thieves' performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" before Hizzoner's "State of Downtown" address at Civic Space Park in November.
During her teenage years in Nebraska, Moore probably wouldn't have envisioned it. She'd been a childhood member of her church choir and participated in high school chorus, but a "severe case of stage fright" kept her from singing solo. Just before moving to the Valley, she took a chance at an open mic night in Jerome and discovered she had a knack for belting out the blues.
Lander hasn't been quite as shy about showing off his own musicianship over the years. He picked up the guitar in high school but didn't get serious until his then-girlfriend's pregnancy motivated him to drop out of school and enroll in the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in South Phoenix. He then did time over the next decade with such bygone Valley bands as American Remains before going solo and embracing the blues.
"When I started out there by myself, I was some long-haired young kid beating the shit out of his guitar, singing older Robert Johnson-style blues about killing, and talking about death," he says.
While he's mellowed quite a bit since those days, Lander still plays like a "dirty pounder," which he incorporates into The Sugar Thieves' upbeat combination of an "old-school, stompin', Delta, raw blues sound" with roots and gospel influences.
His thick, Tom Waits-meets-Nick Cave singing voice provides counterpoint to Moore's dulcet tones and the potent instrumentation of saxophonist Shea Marshall, bassist Ray Thiry, and drummer David Libman.
The result is what Moore describes as "a meat-shakin', root-shakin', feel-good, toe-tappin', finger-snappin', head-bobbin' kind of music."
"No matter what age group you represent, I'm going to see you tapping your foot at the bar. Even if you are not someone who gets up and dances or does anything like that," she says.
Like its shows, the band's performance schedule is energetic. Besides a regular Wednesday-night slot at Sail Inn, they've gigged during the past two years at churches, bars, fashion shows, and even a stamp-collecting shindig at the Mesa Convention Center. You can also find the couple at the highfalutin Bourbon Steak every Thursday playing a happy-hour acoustic set for a well-heeled crowd that "mostly ignores us and treats us like wallpaper," Moore jokes.
Though well-to-do Scottsdale types may pay no mind to The Sugar Thieves, the crowd at the Rhythm Room definitely digs them. Club owner Bob Corritore says that when the band participated at 2008's Arizona Blues Showdown, the entire crowd got into it.
"Just to hear the buzz in the room, everybody was talking about them. We're a little bit spoiled by having them in town, but when people see them in a showcase situation, people who don't normally get to see them are like, 'Wow, this band has a lot of pizzazz,'" he says.
Moore says the band's music (which consists of both original compositions and covers of such standards as Willie Nixon's "Flamin' Mamie") isn't just for blues junkies; it's also for people with limited knowledge of the genre.
"We're able to go out and play music that was written in the 1930s — Robert Johnson, Leadbelly — and reprise covers nobody in our age group has ever heard and make people dance," she says. "We want people to understand it really doesn't matter if you don't like blues music — you damn well might like The Sugar Thieves because it is a lot of fun. We're high-energy, and the songs that we play may come out of the 1930s or they may be songs that we wrote on the way to the bar, but either way, it's bringing a whole new generation of kids that otherwise would not appreciate the genre at all."
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